by Steven Chan
4 October 2009
The church in the first century experienced tremendous growth. That incredible fact was recorded in several passages such as in Acts 4:4: “… many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” and in Acts 5:14: “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women”. But with increasing number of believers comes challenges as well: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” (Acts 6:1)
Whenever we deal with people, there will almost inevitably be complaints/dissatisfaction among people for whatever reasons. In this instance, the Bible tells us that the murmurings were by the Hellenists against the Hebrews. We are told that the Hellenists were Jews who had stayed in other parts of the region such as Greece and spoke the Greek language in contrast with the Jews who stayed in Jerusalem and spoke the Hebrew language. Basically, they differed from the Jews in Jerusalem in some manner. Due to the differences in their background, there arose a murmuring of neglect.
It is interesting to note how the apostles responded to the murmuring. Did they preach a lesson on the sin of murmuring and warn those who murmured that they would be disfellowshipped if they continue to murmur and cause division in the church? Did they tell them to shut up, put up or ship out? Did they take personal offence that as the leaders of the church, their leadership was being questioned or brought into disrepute by those who murmured? Did they preach a lesson on the sin of racial or cultural division among brethren? Did they recommend that the best solution would be for the Hellenist Christians to leave and form their own congregation since they feel neglected? Did they say that the church is supposed to focus on spiritual matters and as such the matter of daily distribution of food is unimportant and should be out-sourced to other institutions which are perhaps better equipped to undertake such benevolent activities?
The response of the apostles is very instructive: “Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And the saying pleased the whole multitude.” (Acts 6:2-5)
The apostles were the unquestioned leaders of the church at that time. But let’s notice how they led the congregation through this challenging event and yet ensure that the momentum of church growth was not slowed/negatively impacted in any way. The Bible says that the apostles summoned the multitude of the disciples. That must have numbered in excess of 8,000 (3,000 who were converted in Acts 2:41 and 5,000 in Acts 4:4 plus the multitudes mentioned in Acts 5:14). Calling a meeting of that many believers (the Bible refers to them as the “multitude of the disciples”) was probably a logistical challenge. Nonetheless the apostles saw it fit to call them to come together in order to address the issue of the daily distribution of food.
After they were gathered together, the apostles explained to them their proposed solution. Interestingly after they had taken the effort to explain to them their proposed solution, there was no need to put their proposal to a vote by the disciples – as the Bible noted: “the saying pleased the whole multitude”. Why was the whole multitude (i.e. both Hebrew and Grecian Jews) pleased with the saying? The proposal of the apostles demonstrated wisdom in addressing the actual problem of daily distribution of food without anyone being neglected. It did not try to apportion blame on past conduct or chastise anyone for bad intention or conduct in the handling of the matter.
In their God-given wisdom they explained that it was not good for them to “leave the word of God and serve tables”. In other words, although the matter of serving tables was important, it ought not to distract them from their primary work of sowing the seed, the Word of God and prayer (Acts 6:4).
Hence, they proposed that the multitude of disciples “seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business”. They gave the congregation the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process by requesting them to choose seven men who fulfilled the three required attributes of “good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”. As the leaders, the apostles retained the right to appoint the seven men. But they gave the guidance to the congregation to choose from among themselves the seven men who met those three qualifications. It is noteworthy that the apostles did not act dictatorially without regard or reference to the congregation. They also did not simply decide among themselves who would be the appropriate people to do the work. They invite the congregation to select men from among themselves who they know would meet the criteria laid down by the apostles.
How did the congregation go about selecting the seven men? That process is not specified or disclosed. But whatever process they may have adopted (whatever may be the expedient manner preferred), the multitude “chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (and power – Acts 6:8, and wisdom Acts 6:10), and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.” (Acts 6:5-6) It is interesting to note that among the seven men chosen, Stephen was singled out as a man of faith and Holy Spirit and Nicolas was notably mentioned as a proselyte from Antioch – demonstrating the wisdom of the multitude in choosing at least one who was a Hellenistic Jew to assist in the serving of tables as he would then be able to ensure that the Grecian widows would be taken care of as well. Evidently all seven possessed the three attributes set down by the apostles. As recorded in Acts 8, Philip was more than just a server of tables; he was a great preacher of the gospel as well. It is to be noted that those chosen by the multitude were set before the apostles for the apostles to pray for them and to appoint them for the task. God’s role in the selection and appointment process was clearly evident.
When the matter was addressed in the way that God intended it, the church continued with its explosive growth: Acts 6:7: “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” The test of a church being able to sustain its growth is its ability to navigate through the various challenges it may face – without losing its membership.
The example of Acts 6 teaches us that each and every member is important in the decision-making process and ought to be involved in the process (albeit in the selection process but with the ultimate appointment by the apostles or the elders as overseers as the case may be). More importantly, members in the congregation ought only to choose those who are of good reputation (i.e. well thought of among both brethren and non-members as honourable, honest as well as possessing good track records of discharging their duties well with whatever had been entrusted to them in the past – Luke 16:10), full of the Holy Spirit (i.e. spiritual-minded person of faith and prayer, whose close relationship with God is evident by the fruit of the Spirit in his life) and full of wisdom (i.e. one who knows how best to handle matters; not just one who is able but lacking in good sense, prudence or wisdom in carrying out the work).
We should not be negligent or disobedient (by failing to follow God’s guidance of required attributes as outlined in Acts 6) in our choice of those whom we set before the elders and God to be appointed to serve in the congregation in the various capacities. It ought not to be a popularity contest or based on just because “he is a nice person”, nor should it be one of default – meaning that one is selected merely because no one else wants to do it…
As brethren in Klang today select those whom they believe meet the requirements of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to serve or lead in the various capacities, may we select prayerfully and being ever mindful that those appointed are likely to enhance the work of the church in Klang and thereby bring glory to God. If we do our part well, in selecting the right leaders to serve, then the Lord will bless our effort and we will experience the multiplying of disciples in our midst. 2010 will be a challenging but exciting year for the church. We need to prepare well for a good harvest.